Summer Moviethon 2016: The Great Alone

June 24: #12, The Great Alone

Told you I was a sucker for documentaries that feature niche sports!

Already behind on my quest to watch and review 150 movies in 90 days, The Great Alone was a godsend as I browsed Netflix. Only 80 minutes long, a five-star user average, and it's a documentary about a sled dog racer? As someone who once watched (and enjoyed) a documentary on the competitive Scrabble scene, it was a no-brainer.

Let's get right to it - The Great Alone is fantastic. It checks all the boxes: it provides you with the information necessary to understand the niche sport it covers without drowning you in it. It provides incremental background on the subject, second-generation Iditarod competitor Lance Mackey, to give you a reason to care about what's happening. And most of all, like all great sports documentaries, it's not really about the sport.

The cinematography is gorgeous throughout.

Mackey's father, Dick Mackey, won perhaps the most memorable Iditarod race of all-time in 1978. In a race that covers 1,049 miles, Mackey won by one second, collapsing at the finish line as his son, Lance, looked on.

Dick Mackey was a great sled dog racer, but a subpar father, which he admits himself in the film. "I knew the personalities and quirks and in-and-outs of my dogs better than I understood my children," he says. Like so many boys who failed to gain their father's attention, Lance reacted not by avoiding sled dog racing, but by immersing himself in it in an effort to finally get the attention and acceptance he wanted from his dad. Your mileage may vary, but if you can relate at all to Lance's relationship with his father, this film will hit home.

Along the way, Lance had other struggles, too, including a bout with throat cancer and struggles with drug addiction. It's clear that many of Lance's issues spiraled out of the childhood that he spent trying in vain to connect with his father. It's poignant and sad to see that, even decades later as a grown man himself, Lance still remains driven by the urge to be loved by someone who always had other things he'd rather do.

A nine-day race throughout Alaska provides a lot of opportunities for beautiful shots, and director Greg Kohs doesn't disappoint. Kohs uses long-distance shots of Mackey and his team of dogs to illustrate the scope of the race and showcase the beauty of Alaska. Kohs also makes skillful use of the interviews with Lance and his family, knowing when to linger on a close-up and when to use a voiceover as Lance continues his efforts to reach Nome, where the race finishes.

All of a sudden, marathon running doesn't look so lonely.

Even besides the personal drama, the documentary is pretty fascinating stuff. Lance's relationship with his dogs is rather touching and makes it hard to think of a sport like this as abusive to the animals, as PETA claims. I suppose it'd be a matter of the individual racer and how they treat their dogs, but Lance clearly loves his animals as much as he does any human. I also enjoyed the footage of Lance reaching checkpoints in tiny Alaskan towns, where bundled-up kids ask for autographs and the racers stop for an hour or two of sleep before heading off again.

Grade: A

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